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NASA to launch mission to Van Allen radiation belts

As a part of NASA’s Living with a Star program, two new probes will be launched into low-Earth orbit this Friday in order to study the Van Allen radiation belts— two concentric rings of high-intensity particles that circle the Earth, often disrupting satellites and infrastructure.

The sun and Earth’s clashing magnetic fields create the Van Allen Belts encircling the planet, resulting in a field of electrons and protons that protect the Earth from harmful radiation emitted from space. Although the radiation belts can act like a shield, they are comprised of harmful radiation that can expel electrons and other particles to the detriment of satellites and astronauts traveling through their orbit. NASA says they are particularly interested in the role the belts play in geomagnetic storms caused by solar flares.

NASA says the two identical Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) and their suite of advanced scientific instruments will study the particle storms surrounding Earth in greater detail than ever before. The two probes are necessary due to the constantly changing conditions within the belts. NASA says the probes will be sent into an eccentric orbit capable of covering the entire region of the radiation belts, in order to quantify particle acceleration, plasma waves, electric and magnetic fields, and other long and short term changes within the belts.

Nicky Fox, deputy project scientist at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, MD, says, “We live in the atmosphere of the sun. So when the sun sneezes, the Earth catches a cold.” Ms. Fox further unpacks the analogy by saying, “So whatever is happening on the sun, the Earth will feel an effect and will respond to that changing space weather.”

NASA’s Living with a Star program is managed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. The RBSP spacecraft was built and will be managed by the nearby APL for the two-year duration of the mission. “The Radiation Belt Storm Probes will give us a better understanding of how the radiation belts actually work, and allow us to do a better job of predicting and protecting against the radiation that’s up there in the future,” said Mission Systems Engineer Jim Stratton, also of APL.

According to NASA, each probe is six feet wide by three feet high with eight sides and weighs more than 1,400 pounds apiece. In order to safeguard against interfering with data collection, a number of instruments are attached to booms that extend out from the satellite. Additionally, NASA says shielding and data filters are intended to offer protection from the intense environment as well as deter probe interference with data collection. Mr. Stratton says, “Definitely the biggest challenge that we face is the radiation environment that the probes are going to be flying through.” He adds, “Most spacecraft try to avoid the radiation belts — and we’re going to be flying right through the heart of them.”

Launch for the RBSP is scheduled this Friday. Ms. Fox stresses the need to understand the radiation belts in order to improve models of Earth-sun interaction, necessary for pursuing all manner of space travel and exploration.

Ms.Fox explains, “It will help us protect astronauts that are out in Earth orbit, and it will benefit the science community by giving us a lot more information about fundamental particle physics.”